A Mother on a Mission

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Author: Meg Fansler

On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, shooting and killing 17 of his former schoolmates and faculty. This event marked the 18th school shooting in less than two months. In the aftermath of the event, students and parents have raised their voices, calling for stricter gun laws and improved protection in schools. Among those activists is Lori Alhadeff who lost her 14-year-old daughter, Alyssa, in the tragedy.

Alhadeff is now making her voice heard even louder after winning a seat on the Broward County School Board earlier this month. Before the incident, Alhadeff was a stay-at-home mother, but after seeing the response of the district to the shooting, she decided to become an active agent of change in her community. While serving, she plans to direct her attention to improving security in schools and the accountability of administrators to respond appropriately to these situations, as well as follow through with proposed protective plans for the school.

Her actions mirror these plans as she has been involved in lobbying legislators for more money towards safety measures in schools and stricter gun control laws. Alhadeff and her husband have created a nonprofit, Make Our Schools Safe, which is geared towards the installation of metal detectors, bullet-proof glass, and improved fences and gates at schools. They are also teaming with researchers and professionals to create the best protocols and survival skills for school shooting situations and eventually plan to create model schools which can be implemented throughout the country.

While these plans are preventative, it is important to highlight a restorative/treatment aspect that could be added to the agenda to make an all-encompassing strategy that prevents future events like this from happening, as well as restores this broken community. Nikolas Cruz was known by the administration and district to have social, emotional, behavioral, and academic challenges. In his police interview, he disclosed that he heard a voice instructing him to be destructive, had previously attempted suicide and was bullied in school, and was enrolled in special education classes that had been taken away shortly before the shooting. For these issues, it would have been vital that he be assessed for risk. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends three steps to implement threat assessment procedures in schools. The first step is to create a district-wide protocol for handling and investigating threats from students. Next, a threat assessment team consisting of staff, school mental health professionals, and local law enforcement needs to be formed to ensure a thorough and unbiased assessment. Finally, the school community should be educated on providing a safe and supportive environment for all students and faculty, promoting a decrease in problems, as well as providing a safe space to report concerning issues.

In this situation, a mental health professional can act as both a preventative and restorative player. A counselor or psychologist would have been useful in Nikolas Cruz's case, as he had been suicidal and had behavioral and emotional problems throughout his childhood. A mental health professional can also be useful for the survivors of this event. After experiencing a traumatic event, between 20 and 25% of people will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. This disorder is better understood as longing effects after trauma and can manifest in flashbacks, avoidance of triggering places or events, being frightened easily, memory issues when remembering the event, and disruptive or disrespectful behaviors. The good news is that support groups, positive coping strategies, and other outlets can prevent this disorder from developing, often provided by mental health professionals. However, for that 20 to 25% of people who do develop PTSD, mental health professionals can also offer useful treatments, such as medication and psychotherapy.

As a new school board member, Lori Alhadeff's course of action can make an impact in the Broward County School District and hopefully it does prevent an event, such as this, from happening again. However, there are still areas that her strategy could incorporate in the future. With more research into the field of law enforcement, criminology, psychology, and other related areas of study, her plans can be enhanced and could be a model for us all in combating the occurrence of school shootings.

Ashleigh Diserio Consulting works with individuals and organizations, assisting them in gleaning insight into a person’s life, motivation, and past and future behavior, so certain areas of behavior can be understood with a high degree of accuracy. We provide services in the areas of criminal and intelligence investigations, management support, threat assessment, insider threat support, and education and training.